It is a trap many would-be influencers fall into; thinking that the protest march is a relic of the 1960s, alongside free-love and tie-dye. In a time when politics seems increasingly privatised out of democratic decision making, it is easy to dismiss the persuasive element of a group of fresh-faced youthful activities advancing en masse to the stern face of the establishment. However, direct action can only be ignored if its organisers allow it to be.
It frequently feels as if protest movements now start with their own ends in sight. Assumptions of politicians’ apathy and a divided public form the basis of a disenchanted youth’s rejection of engaging in civil disruption. This is a cynicism it is understandable to have developed in the face of so many failings – think of the Independence protests in Catalonia or the anti-Trump sentiments – but these frustrated although ultimately overridden campaigns are just what is most frequently reported on. There is a far greater level of political engagement than the public is made aware of, but it doesn’t make the headlines. From leafleting for their local MPs to simply signing petitions they find on social media; young people are not nearly as lethargic as they are often depicted to be.
For instance, the rise of Momentum in the Labour Party is described in the mainstream media as a kind of hostile take-over, and even within the hard left who should be supporting the demographic change in the party there is a suspicion of the newly active sub-sect. Arguably, this is far more a result of the view that any kind of activism is bound to fail in the political climate of the 21st Century rather than a rejection of the spirit of change or the radical policies that Momentum stand for.
Parallels could even be drawn between the suspicion of Momentum and the antipathy towards the Brexit campaign. Although in terms of the aims and supporters of the two groups they are at polar opposites, they both represent the potential for genuine mobilisation of the politically disenfranchised. Following the shock result of the EU Referendum there was a prevailing feeling of surprise at the possibility of a radical movement being able to achieve such major change in a system which has been stifled by a neo-liberal conservatism across the political spectrum.
The trope that is most often used to put down protest movements is that they cannot survive the ‘trolling’ and ‘flame wars’ of social media. As the internet becomes the primary medium for engagement with political and social issues, those who have not been raised as natives to the cyberspace see it as a hindrance to passion in campaigning. Whilst there is definitely space to see a general desensitisation as a result of over-exposure to distressing footage of a number of global issues. There is also a mass of evidence that the power of social media has been harnessed by social activists to inspire otherwise uninformed or uninterested parties. Whether the campaign behind the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum was based on an accurate or ethical rhetoric, it most certainly succeeded in tapping into a reserve of energy for action both virtual and tangible.
Take another example from the U.K. of the fossil free and divestment campaign across university campuses. Despite an assertion that environmental issues are the reserve of scientists and experts, students have demonstrated that so-called ‘Blockadia’, a term coined by Naomi Klein to describe the front-lines of resistance to the extractive fossil fuel industry, has both a physical and virtual existence. Thus, like the Leave campaign, it transcends the gap between the tangible world of protest and the art of online dissent, creating a new era of direct action. So far, the movement has persuaded 68 Universities across Great Britain some form of divestment from the fossil fuel industry, with tactics ranging of subtle ‘subverting’ to more extreme measures at the King’s University in London where students took on a 2 week long hunger strike until the University committed to full divestment.
What these examples show is that although protest looks different for thee avocado toast munching and Instagram sharing generation it is not a dead art. Whilst still employing the power of physical occupation or marching, activists have learnt not to reject technology and social media because of its potentially diluting effects but to harness it as another facet of direct action.